If you are a small design firm and one of your clients with a limited budget needs a new website, you may decide to purchase and customize one of the widely available stock website templates (a.k.a WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla themes). Using a template is probably the simplest way to get your client started with a new website. Most templates also cost very little, making it an attractive option for a start-up website on a budget.
However, the simplicity of using templates can be a double-edged sword: something that is very simple to set up can be nearly impossible and often expensive to customize later on, especially if such customization is required, such as when your client’s business needs change and they outgrow their existing website.
When are templates appropriate?
Using templates as a low-budget option can be appropriate in two cases: 1) if the website is a temporary placeholder that is set up to be a landing page until the client is ready for a more comprehensive solution, or 2) if the website is meant to remain a simple brochure site, with only basic textual information and not much functionality, and it is expected that the website will not scale and will not require any additional functionality in the future.
With case number two, it has often been my experience that clients’ appetites grow and the scope often changes and expands during and after the project. Therefore, it may be wise to plan ahead and foresee potential requests for website maintenance and additions. With stock templates, you may indeed save money in the short term. However, will a stock template be a good solution if you anticipate any significant future changes to the website? Based on my experience with stock templates, they have inherent problems which do not justify their lower upfront cost. In fact, because of these problems, the cost of the project may end up being significantly higher.
Stock templates are generic – they are not tailored for all possible applications and may not be flexible enough for your client. They may lack some options that your client needs or will need in the future. Most stock templates can be modified and customized up to a certain point and only as long as the template has built-in options to allow for specific modifications. However, if a client ever requests custom modifications that the template cannot accommodate, there will be a need for some custom from-scratch development. And that means that you actually need to hire a developer to go in and modify the code in your stock template. After two or three extensive modifications, you may find that it would have been more efficient and cost-effective to start with a custom website from the beginning.
Unfamiliar or low-quality code
As a graphic designer, you may like the visual appeal of some stock templates, but what web developers are concerned with is what’s happening “under the hood” of the template – its codebase. If you hire a developer to help customize your template, your developer is likely to tell you that it’s more difficult to go through and understand the workings of someone else’s code rather than write their own code from scratch. Some stock templates may look nice and have an impressive set of options, but they could be badly coded and your developer will need to come up with hacks or workarounds in order to customize the website to your client’s requirements. Such work is time-consuming and may potentially result in project delays and budget overruns.
Bloated admin interfaces
Stock templates are mass-produced. They are built to sell to a wide range of potential customers, so they may pack lots of options which may be irrelevant and confusing to you and your client. Some options may not even be easily disabled, so they stay lingering on your site, never being used. These options may keep getting in your way as you manage the website content, and may also slow down your website loading speed because of all of the unnecessary code. One of the perks of custom websites is that the admin interface is simple and clean, because it only has the features your client needs and is designed with your client’s requirements and preferences in mind.
If you really want to provide high-end services to your clients, you should avoid using generic stock template solutions, and instead focus on designing custom websites and on teaming up with high-quality developers to help implement your designs. One of the characteristics of a high-end design or marketing firm is that they look beyond their clients’ immediate needs – they can foresee their client’s future requests and help their clients plan beyond the current project.
If your client’s business is growing and will possibly be adding more products or services in the future, this is an indication that their website will need to scale and incorporate additional features and enhancements. A stock template may be a low-cost quick and easy solution now, but later on it may be more expensive to implement modifications and customizations to the template than on a custom site. If you plan long-term (as you should), it’s best to offer your client a custom-developed configurable website from the start. A custom website would involve some upfront investment, but because maintenance and modifications will be easier to implement, it will likely turn out to be the most flexible and cost-effective solution over the long term.